Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines  by Michael J. McCormack

Michael J. McCormack, the author of Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines: A Life Story of a Decorated Vietnam Veteran (CreateSpace, 396 pp., $19.99, paper; $19.99, Kindle), served as a Marine in the Vietnam War.  He “was born into a poor family in the Irish slums of Chicago and still went on to become a self-made worldwide journalist,”  McCormack tells us.

His father and grandfather were both Marines, but growing up McCormack was a screw-up and always in trouble with the law. He thought there was no hope that he could be a Marine. But a Marine recruiter thought differently.

Mack McCormack had to stand in front of a judge to get into the Marines. Luckily for him—or perhaps not so luckily—the judge had been a Marine. “Where you are going, you won’t have time for this nonsense,” he told McCormack. “You’ve got to grow up quickly, son.”

With a main character called Clancy and lots of dialogue, the book reads more like a novel than a memoir. In it, McCormack explores the extremes of his life, often using extreme and frowned-upon language. His references to people of color are mostly phrased in ways that would cause eyebrows to be raised in polite society.  He makes the point throughout the book that he is not a person who came from polite society, nor does he seek to occupy a place there.

Jewish women are invariably referred to as “Jew bitches” and African Americans are usually referred to by the “n” word. Those of us who occupied positions in the rear echelons in the military are referred to as “military fairies,” a phrase I had not previously heard. The New York Times is referred to as the “Jew York Times” and liberal ideas are called “left wing bullshit.”

PTSD is often discussed, usually as it relates to the behavior and failings of the author. He was also plagued with eczema for which he had expected to be forgiven military service. That did not happen and caused him much resentment.

john_world_war_ii_draftJohn Wayne gets discussed way beyond the usual mentions and the phrase “baby killers” is used more often than in any book I’ve read. Agent Orange is discussed, as is Bob Hope and the Vietnamese custom of using their feet to wipe their butts after defecation.

That’s another new one on me.

The book is not well proofread. “Land mines,” for example, appears as “land minds.”  According to McCormack, African Americans can’t swim and flak jackets are “flat” jackets.

It’s a strange world.

The author’s website is clancy21.com

—David Willson

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We Shot the War edited by Lisa Nguyen

It’s not that the photos in We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam (Hoover Institution Press, 214 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), aren’t first rate. They’re really good and provide a clear look at everyday life of American troops in the Vietnam War. That said, the photos are a letdown after the big build-up from the publisher.

The Overseas Weekly is described as a trail-blazing, anti-establishment rag that was the GI’s voice: “The least popular publication at the Pentagon,” we’re told. The people who put it together must have been real rabble-rousers.

The book’s Foreword tells us that the images used in the book were culled from 20,000 photos in the Hoover Institution Library’s Archives. National Geographic also liked to trumpet how many rolls of film were shot, but I always thought the greatest boast would be getting the greatest number of unforgettable images from the fewest rolls of film.

The book is edited by Lisa Nguyen, an archivist who organized an exhibit this summer of Overseas Weekly war photos at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Overseas Weekly was founded in Germany by Stanford graduates in 1950 to cover military affairs in a less-official manner. As the war in Vietnam escalated, a Saigon office was established. A young, Texas journalist, Ann Bryan, its editor-in-chief, was the only female editor in Southeast Asia.

The Overseas Weekly irritated the brass by covering such sensitive topics as drug use and racial strife among the troops. It was noted, too, for its “Man in the Street” column, which gave enlisted men the opportunity to sound off—and for running lots of photos of pretty girls.

Ann Bryan in Vietnam in 1967

The paper had a small, dedicated staff and a shoestring budget. The first issue went to press in 1966 and by 1970 it was all but washed up. But in that four-year period its writers and photographers (often one and the same) scattered across South Vietnam and Cambodia, documented the war from the GI’s perspective. Unlike better-known media covering the war, its readers were those fighting the war.

Subsequently, the coverage became more nuanced, providing a gentler portrayal of the war’s combatants. It wasn’t pandering; it’s because the editor would be called on every error of fact and tone. Reaction was immediate because the audience wasn’t half a world away.

–Michael Keating

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From the Overseas Weekly archive, South Vietnam, 1967

The Game by George Howe Colt

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George Howe Colt was inspired to write The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 (Scribner, 400 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) after watching “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29,” a terrific documentary film made in 2008 by Kevin Rafferty. The documentary and book focus on one of the most improbable football comebacks imaginable—so improbable that the tie felt very much like a victory for the underdog Harvard team.

Colt was fourteen years old in 1968, living what he calls “a Harvard-saturated childhood.” He went to The Game in 1968 with his father and brother—and, in fact, still has his game ticket.

There are many interesting story lines in The Game, and the writing is generally engaging. With the subtitle, “Harvard, Yale and America in 1968,” the book’s scope is ambitious. I wonder, though, whether Colt would have given us a better book if he’d concentrated in more depth on fewer stories lines. He writes about so many players, coaches, and others that I needed a cheat sheet to keep track of who everyone was.

The first 125 pages drags a bit. But the book picks up speed midway, and ends with a bang. The book takes off when Colt gets to the story of John Tyson. Tyson, an African-American football player at Harvard, is an admirable figure who allows Colt the opportunity to weave in a several Civil Rights stories.

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Pat Conway

The war in Vietnam is a constant presence in the book, though Colt doesn’t provide many specifics. The most Vietnam War-related compelling story involves an older Harvard player, Pat Conway. The defensive back had dropped out of Harvard, enlisted in the Marines, and ended up at the Khe Sanh.

Conway then made his way back to Harvard—and to the football team—in time to take part in the 1968 season. Colt’s descriptions of Vietnam War battle scenes are memorable. But I wish he had spent more time on Conway’s time in Vietnam.

Colt does a lot of name dropping—(Do we really need to know that one of the players dated Meryl Streep?)—with some names having no context for readers unfamiliar with the 1960s. That said, there are many interesting folks who make their way into the book, including Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore, and fledgling Yale cartoonist Garry (“Doonesbury”) Trudeau. Jones played offensive guard in The Game.

11111111111111111111111111There is a double epilogue of sorts, with a chapter on antiwar activities on the Harvard campus in 1969, followed by a true epilogue with updated info on the book’s main players. The mature reflections of a few players are startling in their vulnerability.

Even with the attempt to capture so many different stories, there are some gaps. There is nothing on the dramatic and contentious 1968 presidential election, for example, which seems strange.

In a nutshell, the book is kind of history-lite, but with enough stories and odd bits of information to keep you entertained—and to make you want to learn more.

I just might go out and read a biography of the Yale’s noted antiwar chaplain, William Sloane Coffin.

–Bill Fogarty

Ten: Five Five by Royal Hettling

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Sappers, rockets, and stress comprised the enemy forces that Royal Hettling faced from practically “sunset to sunrise” while guarding the perimeter of Cam Ranh Bay Air Base in 1970-71 during the Vietnam War. His closest ally was Thunder, a one-hundred-pound purebred German Shepherd who walked a nightly beat with him.

An Air Force enlistee at eighteen, Hettling relates his time in-country in Ten: Five Five: Chronicles of the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit (Create Space, 158 pp. $25, paper; $8.99, Kindle). “Ten-five-five” is radio code for a K-9 alert indicating the presence of a threat.

Despite its subtitle, Hettling’s book offers limited details about guard dogs beyond noting their keen eyesight and sense of smell that helped handlers distinguish real from imagined threats.

Squadron 483 protected Cam Ranh’s ammunition dump and POL storage areas from Viet Cong sappers. Firefights were frequent. A week after Hettling arrived on base, sappers blew up part of the POL area, their only big success of the year.

Most of Hettling’s fellow K-9 handlers were also on the cusp of ending their teenage years. Their stories differ from the usual Vietnam War memoirs in that the men’s war-time lives existed in distinctly different light and dark worlds. By day—except for unpredictable in-coming rocket salvos—they lived like college guys. They went to the beach, played football, and drank beer.

But nights provided lifelong frights. Isolated on the base perimeter, the dog handlers were vulnerable to sneak attacks at any time. Hettling sums up this schizophrenic atmosphere as follows: “Some nights you will never forget. It is as if they happened last night.”

War touched Hettling in several ways. The first casualty was his loss of innocence. He felt ambivalence about hating sappers and also worrying that they looked so much younger than he was. Additionally, he recognized that his hootch maid was a Viet Cong sympathizer. She confirmed that, and he tolerated it. His analyses of sapper activities provide a respectful tribute to the enemy occasionally outmaneuvering American guards.

At times, Hettling radiates a mood that reflects how a bunch of young Americans performed tasks that they would rather not have been doing while wondering how and why they had ended up in a position to do them. The men did not fight the system, however. They admired their commander, Lt. Col. Carl W. Roy, a World War II veteran. Other officers seldom appear in the book.

Cam Ranh Bay was a closed base, which meant GIs could not go into nearby My Ca village. Considering their confinement to a peninsula jutting into the South China Sea, the dog handlers maintained a positive attitude and worked well together.

Camaraderie in the squadron emerged in ways unlike anything that had ever happened to them before, Hettling says. Interdependence led to friendships in which they “felt each other’s pain, joy, and rejection” such as “the dreaded Dear John letter. The bond we established in Vietnam still exists today.”

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Royal Hettling

In several ways, the book’s format reminds me of a high school yearbook disturbed by a war. Hettling presents eight pages of photographs of his comrades labeled “Then and Now.” He also devotes eight pages to wild animals that lived on or near the base.

Interspersed with photographs of facilities, equipment, and weapons, he includes accounts of combat action undertaken by his squadron and describes his own close calls. He presents declassified after-action reports that confirm the stories.

Hettling is donating all proceeds from the sale of Ten: Five Five to the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, Minnesota. He operates the Center along with his brother Charlie who also served in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Operation Linebacker II 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

The best military historians present the thoughts and actions of troops from both sides in a battle. Marshall L. Michel III aspires to fulfill that high bar as he writes about the massive bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 in Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s are Sent to Hanoi (Osprey, 96 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book).

Michel flew F-4 escorts for the bombers, a small slice of his 321 combat missions. In 2001, following a fact-finding trip to Vietnam, he wrote The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle, although he was not happy having to rely on translations from government sources for the North Vietnamese view of the action. After contacting men who had battled the B-52s, he returned to Vietnam and met with North Vietnamese Air Defense surface-to-air missile (SA-2) crewmen and fighter pilots. He also read The Red Book, a manual filled with years of observations about bomber tactics that taught the enemy how to shoot down a B-52.

Based on this insider information, Michel wrote his new book, which might be the final word on the eleven-day air-to-ground Linebacker II campaign.

During Linebacker II, flexibility in tactics determined success and failure for both sides. When the bombing began, Americans were unaware of how much information the North Vietnamese had about B-52 tactics. That’s why in the first four days of battle the B-52s used compromised maneuvers and SA-2s destroyed twelve of them.

Leadership conflicts also hampered American decision making. Planners at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha—who owned the bombers—were out of touch with crewmen half a world away and miscalculated the B-52s’ electronic jammers’ efficiency, which gave a tactical advantage to SA-2 missile teams.

Michel clearly explains the ploys and counter ploys used by both sides. By night eight when the need for SA-2s far exceeded their rate of production—and the B-52s bombed at will—the North Vietnamese sought to resume the Paris peace talks.

Prior to walking the reader through each night of Linebacker II, Michel describes the available weapons and their associated systems on both sides; and offers analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and plans; the political climate; and the campaign’s objective.

Thanks to the talent of illustrator Jim Laurier, Operation Linebacker II 1972 has the outstanding graphics we expect of Osprey publications. His double-page paintings of night operations made me long for flying dangerous missions. Well-chosen photographs, many from Michel’s collection, further enhance the text.

In 1972 I spent half of Linebacker II as a Special Operations liaison at U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand and the other half monitoring daily briefings in Saigon. I believed that experience had given me a solid understanding of the campaign, but Michel’s account significantly broadened my knowledge, particularly about the North Vietnamese mentality and initiative.

Books such as Operation Linebacker II 1972 renew my admiration for historians’ ability to recreate events from long ago. In the summer issue of Air Power History, Darrel Whitcomb wrote an article called “Rescue Operations During Linebacker II.” His account of helicopter search and rescue missions that recovered thirty bomber and fighter crewmen perfectly closes the circle for Michel’s work.

You can read the article on line. Read it. You won’t regret it.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Facing the Dragon by Philip Derrick

Phillip Derrrick’s Facing the Dragon: A Vietnam War Mystery Thriller (Sunnyslope Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction. In the preface Derrick tells us that the war in Vietnam was seen differently by every veteran who was there between 1964 and 1973. Events in this novel take place primarily in 1970 at the Second Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.

Derrick is an Air Force brat who joined the Army and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. He later earned a PhD in history and had a career in higher education.

The main character of this novel scams his way into the Army at the age of fifteen, which was not unknown to happen. Our hero, who has several names throughout the book but is known as Jim Peterson at the beginning, had witnessed the murder of his family while they are touring Carlsbad Caverns. He escaped and sought sanctuary in the Army, which he entered through an elaborate ruse involving stolen records. Derrick makes these events believable because he knows how the Army worked back in the day.

The book has an elaborate back-and-forth structure, due to the murderer having been a German soldier and a criminal his past life. That’s why part of the novel takes place in 1945 in Germany as well as in Vietnam in 1970.

Much of this is a semi-standard Army infantry novel fare, with our hero gradually learning Army lore even though he did not go through Basic Training. The story is filled with many of the usual Vietnam War fiction references such as a “fuck-you” lizard who speaks some English, Donut Dollies, ring knockers, Project 100,000, John Wayne, jungle penetrators, LBJ, Vic Morrow in Combat the TV show, shit burning, and elephants. To his credit, Derrick also mentions other stuff that is not so usual such as Karl May, the German author of Western novels; laterite; and the riots at Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ.

Philip Derrick

We also get the usual funny names that soldiers in Vietnam War novels are saddled with; in this case, Prophet, Big Red, Dimes, Peddler, and the Project. The LBJ riots are handled well, which makes this novel unusual.

I recommend Facing the Dragon to those looking for an unusual Vietnam War infantry yarn. It is well written and well edited, and the narrative moves right along with no boring patches.

The author’s website is https://philipderrick.com

—David Willson

The Butterfly Rose by Dick Stanley

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Rarely these days are readers granted an opportunity to enjoy an offering so well constructed and presented as Dick Stanley’s novel, The Butterfly Rose (Cavalry Scout Books, 252 pp. $13.08, paper; $.99, Kindle), a three-generation story of an American and a Vietnamese family’s involvement with each in Vietnam.

Stanley, a former journalist who served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, wordsmiths the English language to an almost lyrical presentation.

One example: “It is a valley of flowers but none is more beautiful than the silken, five petal roses that turn many colors in their brief lives, as ephemeral as butterflies fluttering on a green bush.”

The Butterfly Rose centers on a young, Confederate Army officer, Sean Constantine, a large man with a glowing mane of red hair and a beard to match. After participating in The battle of Manassas, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Through a series of events involving his brother, father, black servant, and a stay in Paris, Constantine is posted to a colonial French garrison in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

His love of roses, developed over the years of his Mississippi youth and his worldly travels, finds a like-minded individual in the 1860s in Vietnam: a village shaman, an old woman skilled in naturopathic and herbal medicines and remedies. She also is a conjurer who converses with the many gods and deities roaming the Vietnamese jungles.

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Dick Stanley

Fast forward a century to a team of American advisers working with an ARVN combat team in that same Central Highlands valley near Que Son. Neal Constantine, a red-headed grandson of Sean, is a member of that American team, working as a historian. He possesses his grandfathers’ 1860s diary and flower guide. And he meets the great granddaughter of the village healer, without knowing about the earlier family connection.

The story toggles back and forth between the centuries, chapter by chapter. Parallels are drawn, including the weather, expectations of higher commands, tactics, ideologies, as well as the relationship between the big, red-headed American and the old healer and their shared interest in the roses that populate the valley.

This novel artfully spans nations, generations, wars and people, and it ties all those strands together with a shared love of flowers and of the short gift we all share with each other—that of life.

—Tom Werzyn